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Stephen Oola, human rights lawyer

Many Ugandans disapprove of the prosecution of rebel leader Dominic Ongwen by the ICC. Thursday he will hear his sentence.


Dominic was an obedient boy when he was abducted in 1988 in Northern Uganda by the LRA and was forced to fight with them as a child soldier. When he surrendered in 2014 and ended up at the ICC, he was a murderous monster.

Victim and perpetrator at the same time, that was new for the Court. In February, after a process that took years, he was found guilty of 61 out of 70 counts for warcrimes and crimes against humanity, in the form of murder, torture, rape, slavery and the use of child soldiers. This Thursday he will hear his sentence.

The verdict in February was received in Northern Uganda with mixed feelings and criticism. Stephen Oola, director of the Ugandan think tank Amani Institute, spoke (link to your report) with civilians who welcomed the verdict, but the majority of the people interviewed expressed their disapproval. ‘The verdict is a judicial error by the ICC’, says Stephen Oola in a telephone interview. ‘The judges have lacked the comprehension to understand Ongwen’s case. This leads to bitter feelings, for victims and prosecutors, and not to reconciliation in Northern Uganda. The verdict is a bad precedent’. Stephen Oola has experienced the war himself. ‘I grew up during the war and as a small child I had to spend many nights in the bush for my security’. He did his mastered in peace studies and is lawyer and human rights activist. He leads the Amani (which means peace in Kiswahili) institute in Gulu.

‘Those who know the complexity of the LRA, understand the injustice in the verdict against Ongwen. I am referring to the 15,000 formerly abducted people who, just like Ongwen, have to come to terms with their past’. Ongwen, who became a senior commander in the LRA, said at this surrender: ‘I went into the bush deaf and blind, and that is how I am leaving the bush. I am now a reborn child, and cannot be held responsible for my mistakes. I am a fool’.


The LRA is the most murderous African rebel group of the last half a century. At the moment, the group counts most likely only a few hundred fighters, who, after having been chased out of Uganda, have now found refuge in CAR and DR Congo. Nowhere at the continent is the question on how to handle victims and perpetrators as hotly debated as in Northern Uganda. Which legal system is capable of handling the suffering caused by this brutal and bizare war?

In 2005 the Court issued arrest warrants against the 5 figure heads of the LRA. Of those 5, LRA leader Joseph Kony is still at large. Three others were killed by him or died while fighting. Ongwen was the only one left. ‘It seems the ICC has made him a symbolic scapegoat for all the violence committed by the LRA’.


Ongwen’s sister Julanda described him as ‘a lovely boy’ in an interview with NRC in 2015. How can such a sweet boy commit such terrible crimes? Oola: ‘The question is whether this man was ever in charge of himself. It is as saying that a slave is committing slavery. Somebody is being abducted and thereafter at a young age indoctrinated, traumatized and tortured. Is it possible for him, at older age, to be in charge of his mental capabilities, while he finds himself still in the same terrorizing environment? In Northern Uganda people understand this dilemma very well, but the lawyers in far-away The Hague do not’.



The lawyers view the LRA wrongly as a conventual guerilla movement, according to Oola, with strong structures and a military command. ‘The LRA is something different, it is determined by a very complex system of spirituality and other convictions. This verdict has completely neglected these aspects.

Magical powers were the strongest weapon of the LRA. When Joseph Kony established the movement in 1988 he based it on a toxic mix of church rituals and tribal magic. Kony spoke in different tongues and the abducted children were his disciples. Oola: ‘The judges in the Hague cannot imagine such magic. But everybody who knows the LRA, whether a professor or a military, will not entirely dismiss his mystical powers. Kony convinced his subordinates that he possessed supernatural powers. The court should investigate how this magic has influenced Ongwen and what should be the consequences for a legal process’.

Do peace and justice collide, and punishment and reconciliation? Do the West and Africa have fundamentally different views about justice? According to Oola, a penal justice system is not the answer to the violence committed in Northern Uganda. He pleads for the use of traditional systems that put the reconciliation center stage, and not the punishment. ‘Many formerly abducted children have undergone these rituals, which made them confess and repent and pay compensation’.

Should Africa ask itself again the question which role the ICC can play at the continent? ‘It forces us to realize that the ICC cannot always be the answer. We have, in Northern Uganda, children that were born in captivity. They have never led a normal life, except a criminal life in the legal sense. This verdict is a blow to any hope for peace and justice’.


A survey Report by Amani Institute Uganda In February 2021, the Pre-Trial Chamber IX Judges of the International Criminal Court (ICC) delivered a verdict on Dominic Ongwen, a former child abductee and later commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). For nearly 28 years, Dominic Ongwen, who was abducted at 9 years, grew in the rank and file of LRA and become one of its senior top commanders. The LRA conflict has been one of the most brutal conflicts experienced in Uganda’s history. Heinous atrocities were committed by the belligerents during the conflict. However, following a referral of the LRA top commanders by the Uganda Government to the ICC, Ongwen and other top LRA commanders were indicted by the Court in 2005, three years after its establishment. Following alleged threat to his life from his commander, Joseph Kony, Ongwen surrendered to the Seleka rebels in the Central African Republic (CAR) in January 2015. The Seleka rebels then handed Ongwen over to the United States forces in the CAR, who together with the Ugandan Government agreed that Ongwen needed to be transferred to the ICC in the Hague to face trial. He was subsequently charged with 70 counts of acts amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity under the Rome Statute. After nearly six years of trial at the Hague, Netherlands, the Trial Chamber IX of the ICC delivered its verdict on the case on 04 February 2021, convicting him of 61 out of the 70 counts. Trial Justice Survey – Amani Report February-2021
Reparations,Responsibility and victim-hood in Transitional Societies Reparations are measures aimed at remedying the harm suffered by victims of serious violations of their human rights. Despite over a decade since the cessation of hostilities in northern Uganda and the promises of a comprehensive transitional justice programme that included reparations, it remains undelivered. A year on from the government’s publication of the National Transitional Justice Policy that set out reparations as one of five priority policy areas, there has been little progress to pass legislation to give it effect. This is notwithstanding the long-term consequences of the over two decades Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and Government of Uganda conflict on victims and their families throughout northern Uganda. This report draws from interviews with key stakeholders on their perceptions on reparations and ways to move forward the debate in July 2018. It aims to provide some general sentiments on a range of actors’ understanding of reparations, what should be considered in a reparation process and forms such measures take, as well as some of the challenges in implementing reparations for the conflict in Northern Uganda. The report is attached here below. Reparations,Responsibility and victimhood in Transitional Societies
Reparations are measures intended to acknowledge and remedy the harm suffered by victims, which in turn can contribute to alleviating grievances of the past and preventing violations in the future. In South Sudan reparations could play an important part in entrenching a human rights based culture and to move away from cycles of violence. Reparations can tap into traditional customary principles of compensation in South Sudan and community dispute resolution to redress some of the individual and communal harm. However, with ongoing insecurity and violence, reparations by themselves may appear as ‘buying off’ certain groups, rather than comprehensively dealing with the root causes and drivers of violence. In many other transitional contexts emerging from conflict, reparations play a complementary role to measures of justice (criminal trials, restorative or traditional dispute resolution, conditional amnesty), truth (inquiries, truth commissions, opening archives) and guarantees of non-repetition (vetting, human rights education, constitutional reform). Together these four strands provide a framework for a country to deal with the past so that it does not recur and those who suffer do not bear the burden on the conflict by themselves. This report is based on engagement with different actors in South Sudan and aims to start a conversation on the merits of reparations in responding to the consequences of the conflict. It also seeks to highlight South Sudan as a case study for further transitional justice research and policy engagement. The report begins by providing the context of the conflict before outlining the scale of victimisation in South Sudan caused by the conflict since 2013. The following section details ongoing transitional proposals on reparations, as well as discussing the traditional practice of compensation and donor support. The final section emphasizes some key challenges for a prospective reparation mechanism in South Sudan. The end of the report provides some recommendations aimed at the South Sudanese government, rebel groups and the international community. Download the full publication below here. Reparations in South Sudan


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